Recently I listened to a 24-year-old definitively describing his life’s path: career promotions in yearly increments, city condos with a view, a new Beamer convertible by 28, and, of course, exciting women. He seemed smart, but certainly not wise. I sometimes wonder how it worked out for him.
This youthful outlook doesn’t really stack up. Subtle and muted nuances have significant and unexpected impact. Non-rational things happen – errors open doors, plans explode into insignificance, love diverts expectations, tragedies and losses alter life’s picture, and serendipitous happenings surprise and bring change. We eventually discover the infamous ‘Butterfly Effect’, where seemingly small, insignificant incidents create unexpected, dramatic, and major consequences.
After chasing the brass ring and pursuing our goals, we find that they can be bereft of fulfillment or satisfaction. Scratching another activity off a ‘bucket list’ may empty the bucket, but it may also stymie the ability to find true meaning and purpose in life. In addition, living to fulfill someone else’s expectations is pure lunacy resulting in hollowness of spirit and accomplishment.
Living isn’t driving through a flat and easy plain with no dead ends or treacherous terrain. In life, the pavement deteriorates, tires go flat, and gas runs low. How we got to where we are is not the result of following a linear strategic map or a set of carefully chosen goals. The trip is more complex than that, and getting a little lost is part of the deal. With age and the twisting road of life that perspective comes clearer.
Reflecting on the past, I sometimes wonder why and how life played out as it did? Like others, I accomplished some things and achieved success professionally, but not always through razor sharp strategy. Frequently, chance or synchronicity was at work. Was it fate or luck or intention or divine intervention? Maybe destiny was present: the daimon, according to psychologist James Hillman, that directs our life and purpose.
Gossamer threads from my early life played out weaving themselves into something more substantial than I could have predicted in my youth. As I told a friend recently, “If my high school teachers could see my life as it has evolved, they would pass out in disbelief.” The so-called rational projections based on my childhood ‘data’ became the victim of intangibles that were not easily perceived or measured.
Certainly, mistakes bruised my soul and disappointed others: I failed in public and private ways. But at different points, I’ve been able to renew my life because of several things, not part of the youthful equation of success.
First and foremost, significant people — those caring and loving teachers, friends, uncles, and others, who gave candid feedback or encouragement that caused me to reflect on my behavior and character. My mother, a single blue-collar parent, taught me about hard work and responsibility and that no one is going to bail me out my difficulties. Significant people, polestars, tell us things we may not like but need to hear that cause us to seek our “better angels” and reach for the best within us.
Secondly, we must follow our own path. Victimhood was not in the cards. Maybe my independent spirit is due to my growing up without my father who died when I was four years old. I was insecure and felt that I couldn’t depend on others. Throughout my career and life, however I was not reticent to stand-alone and take positions that go against the grain or run counter to conventional wisdom. As I tell my grandkids, “It’s okay to be the wolf howling in the wilderness away from the conforming pack.”
Third, renewal comes from looking inward and realizing that wisdom doesn’t come easily. It is the outgrowth of understanding important values, principles, and ethics in every day life.
Life requires just taking care of six inches — those between your ears. Simply, don’t let people park in your head, don’t fog it up with drugs or alcohol, and continue to learn and become an independent skeptical and complex thinker.
Finally, there’s unconditional love. Relatives, friends, teachers, and, even bosses showed and demonstrated love to me. At work, it wasn’t familial or romantic love; it was relating to me so I could fulfill myself and find meaning in my profession. Certainly, family and friends stood with me in dark and difficult times. Being accepted for ‘who you are’ is an important gift: one that is the foundation for long-term relationships.
I don’t have decades ahead of me, but I relish my time each day. I am free – real freedom away from the lure of brass rings, ambitions or notoriety. I learned that the hard way, but that’s life – no simple answers, but with a path of surprises, the unpredicted, and the possible gift of finding yourself.
So celebrate driving through the plains of life and scaling the stark hills and seemingly insurmountable mountains. Learn from the painful collisions. All terrains and paths have an innate beauty all their own when you look back. All provide the depth and nuance of life well lived. A beamer simply doesn’t measure up.